Does an internet-based suit service really measure up?
Corporate work wear is hard to get right. James Wakefield, starting his first job, struggled to avoid looking like his entry-level contemporaries in ill-fitting, poorly constructed suits. When a colleague strolled into the office looking more dapper than Don Draper, Wakefield had a brainwave.
This co-worker had had his suit made in Asia for a couple of hundred dollars. "He hadn't had to compromise on fit or style or price - anything," says Wakefield. "And I thought 'why not get that without having to go overseas'?"
With the help of long-time friend Robin McGowan, Wakefield, now 25, set up an online tailoring business. The site, www.institchu.com, allows suits to be custom-designed and made to measure down to the smallest detail. You'll need 12 measurements - including shoulder, back length and "half bottom" - or you can select a standard sizing. Style, fabric and detailing are then chosen from a menu. The suits are made at a Shanghai factory and delivered to Australian customers within three weeks.
"Most men find suit shopping frustrating and time-consuming," says Wakefield. "This allows them to get great quality suits at a fraction of the price."
Two-and-a-half years since it began, the Sydney-based business is taking 200 orders a month - enough to enable Wakefield, an investment banker, and McGowan, a marketer, to give up their day jobs.
"It's been a long process and all-consuming from the minute I wake up. But we saw the opportunity and wanted to get in before anyone else," says Wakefield, who went to Sydney's Shore school with McGowan.
"Competition's popping up all over the world but it is a niche market; there's still not great awareness. [Our customers are] younger corporate males, aged 21 to 45, who are not afraid to use the internet."
But traditional gentlemen's outfitters say any reservations about buying a suit from an online business might be justified. However sophisticated the online tools, most people would struggle to take their own measurements, says Rick Miolo, owner of Melbourne's V and J Menswear.
"Getting a good fit, especially when it comes to suiting online, sometimes takes several attempts," he says.
"It can be done successfully, no doubt about it, but you've got to understand your own body shape and where it might be a little odd. If you're a bodybuilder, are your biceps big, or your glutes if you're a soccer player? There's no room for error. People gain weight in different areas. You've got to be honest with yourself - you can't blame the service if you're wrong."
John Poulakis, owner of the iconic menswear store Harrolds, recalls a classic episode of TV comedy MASH, set in Korea, in which a character had a suit made. "He said, 'this is really cheap and this is really good, but the pinstripes, instead of going vertical, they went horizontal'," Poulakis says. "Every time I think of cheap Hong Kong tailors, I think of that."
Miolo says being able to see and feel the fabric is an important part of buying a suit.
"Price often reflects quality and durability of the garment," he says. "And you've got to make a judgment call about the corners that might be being cut to deliver a suit quickly and cheaply. Question the make of the suit, the reputation of the company you're dealing with, their manufacturing technology and working conditions."
Nonetheless, Miolo says his shop will be joining the online world within the next six months. "You've got to do it," he says.
And Institchu's Wakefield thinks he and McGowan have all bases covered. He says they worked hard to ensure the website offers an "easy user experience". For the more hesitant they have a showroom in Sydney's CBD and provide, for a small fee, style consultants to help with ordering.
"We do group bookings at offices," he says. "The older men who go to traditional tailors see they can get a great suit that looks sharp for $399."